02/19/2013 04:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Good Conversations Involve Both Talking and Listening

2013-02-12-marriage.jpegThe following essay reflects on and continues A New Conversation on Marriage. Professor John Corvino is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Wayne State University in Detroit, co-author (with Maggie Gallagher) of Debating Same-Sex Marriage, and the author of What's Wrong with Homosexuality? (forth-coming March 1) both from Oxford University Press. These words of advice first appeared at

One of Stephen Colbert's best jokes about George W. Bush praised the 43rd president for being steady: "He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday," Colbert deadpanned, "no matter what happened Tuesday."

In effect, my main piece of advice for those seeking to have a new conversation on marriage is to pay attention to what happened Tuesday.

By "Tuesday," I'm not just referring to that Tuesday last November, when Maine, Maryland, and Washington voters granted marriage rights to same-sex couples, and Minnesota voters rejected an anti-gay-marriage amendment. That day was indeed historic, and we cannot ignore the trends it reflects. But I'm also referring more generally to evidence, and specifically to evidence that challenges our well-entrenched biases.

This advice is harder than it sounds. The line between steadiness and stubbornness is often both jagged and blurry. On the one hand, we become wedded to familiar scripts precisely because they're "tried and true." ("Wedded" is an apt metaphor here; we value marriage largely because of the stability it provides.) In a turbulent world, we crave constancy, and who can blame us?

On the other hand, reciting scripts is not a recipe for great conversation.

Which brings me to a corollary piece of advice: Good conversations involve both talking and listening. The marriage conversation, especially when focused on "gay marriage," has involved scant little listening. This must change.

It's not that we don't try, or at least put on a good show. I've been involved in public "Conversations on Marriage" where hosts pat themselves on the back to the point of bruising for their "open-mindedness" and "tolerance," only to jump right to their canned scripts -- if not at the event itself, then moments afterward. If you don't believe that the other side might possibly have anything worthwhile to say, you won't hear them saying anything worthwhile.

Although all of us are prone to such closed-mindedness, the risk is particularly acute for religious believers who claim to have the Truth, capital T -- from the Bible, infallible church pronouncements, personal revelation or whatever. Once you have the Truth, what's left to hear? The primary danger of religion is that it can lead people to believe they have infallible backing for their very fallible prejudices.

Of course, you don't have to be a religious fundamentalist or even a theist to be an arrogant jackass. And there are many orthodox theists who grapple admirably with opposing evidence (St. Thomas Aquinas is a nice historical example). Thoughtful believers can agree with non-believers on the following, at least: None of us is God.

I'm concerned, naturally, about how the New Conversation will proceed while many of us are still involved in the "old" conversation: the one focused on marriage rights for same-sex couples. That conversation must go on, since virtually no one is happy with the status quo: an untenable patchwork of conflicting laws and practices, with marriage equality in nine states and amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage in dozens of others. The New Conversation is a recalibration of priorities; it need not involve "throwing in the towel" on the equality debate.

But, meanwhile, there are important questions that deserve more attention than they're getting: What is the social and personal significance of marriage? How can we promote a healthy marriage culture, for both adults and children? How can we ensure fairness of opportunity for those who pursue other life options? (Not everyone marries, and not everyone should.)

There are also new questions that arise now that married same-sex couples are a permanent part of the American landscape: What is the distinctive contribution that gays and lesbians can make to our marriage culture, and to our marriage conversation? What does freedom entail, both for these couples and for those who would generally prefer to avoid them?

If we can approach these questions with rigor, humility, and grace, we might all learn something new. It's worth a shot.

Professor John Corvino is a signatory to "A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage." You are invited to read the Call and become a signatory today.